by Esther K. Smith

Author Interview Series: How to Make Books

I was really excited that Esther K. Smith of Purgatory Pie Press‘s book is finally available. I asked her if she would do an email interview about the book. She had a better idea- why not just chat over instant messenger? So that’s what we did. I have pasted our conversation below directly from the chat window. I kept our sentences the way we wrote them so they are sometimes just short snippets missing punctuation. My words are in italic. Here’s Esther-

5:40 PM

first maybe can you tell me about Purgatory Press and how it all started.

Purgatory Pie Press began when Dikko pied (spilled) an overfilled California typecase of 8 pt century oldstyle.
tiny metal type

oh no!

i always say he should have dropped the class and left town– it was at the grad school at U of Wisconsin Madison
But her spent days and nights for weeks and months (well 5 or 6 weeks) putting it back into the case-
this is like those stories of the poor boy who sorts the rice and wheat to get the princess-
but 26 letters plus caps
plus punctuation
sorting rice and wheat is easy by comparison
so the pie was the spill and the purgatory was all that time sorting–

geez I can’t even imagine. i’ve always been intimidated by letterpress.

I don’t work with the type, we say I do the large motor and he does the small motor
so he proofs things and i cut them up and stick them together in a rough idea and then he sets it up on the press
it’s a slow way to work, but the bouncing back and forth is good collaboration

does almost all of the work you do use the letterpress?

we use letterpress for all the purgatory pie press editions
and hand set type
as you probably know, most letterpress now is from computer originals-
they print out negs and make plates from those
dikko teaches letterpress in the printmaking dept of SVA

and you?

I teach artist books at Cooper Union
We also both teach art classes at CUNY

so how many years has Purgatory been in operation?

dikko spilled that type in 1978
I think–unless it was 77–
he moved to NYC in the fall of 78
I lived in Chicago then, I was a costume designer for theatre and dance
I moved to NYC in 1980-
In Chicago, I had the EK Smith Museum of found art

what was that?

well it was my first apt
chicago has lots of space
so i had no furnniture-
but really it was more conceptual than anything
i wanted to be on a museums mailing list
to get cool postcards-
dikko was working at the place-
but he wouldn’t send me the cards–
so i became a museum
and he still wouldn’t send them to me


but i had an apron collection
a few weeks ago i taught a cake box book workshop
and it was a small group
and 2 people had apron collections

wow. how many aprons qualifies as a collection?

i pick up another apron every so often
but here i don’t have a place to exhibit them
i didn’t have many
but they were beautiful
one was patchwork from seminole artists in fla
my mother’s friend had given it to her
others were just odd cool things i’d found in thrift shops as i was shopping for theatre
i bought one during the ny art book fair
an andrea zitel smock
i’m always shocked when i spend $$
but it was not expensive by her standards–since the smock shop was a conceptual piece of hers
and occasionally the eksmith museum must make acquisitions
plus it is an artworkers uniform

so the NY Book Fair was one of the first places people saw your book?

i saw it for the first time there when we met and was sad I couldn’t buy one.

it was sad that i didn’t have any to sell
they had just sent a few by air
but the rest were on the slow boat from china

did you get people excited and interested though?

yes there was lots of interest–
it was fun to show it to people
but of my few copies,
one was stolen (or fell) from my backpack
i walked by a crowd of high school kids coming out of school

probably stolen- it’s very nice

and my back pack was much lighter after that

you should be flattered

i hope they are making books
i am glad they didn’t get my wallet

you probably inspired them all
so why did you decide to make this book?

it is my plan for world domination to teach everyone to make an instant book

did you design the book too?

this book is based on my cooper union class
yes we designed it-
though many people were involved–
the person who did the computer work, Kathleen Phelps, had taken my first course at Cooper Union

who did the how to illustration/collages?
those are adorable

Lindsay Stadig did the illos
she was our Purgatory Pie Press intern one summer
and she also took my Cooper Class

so once someone takes a class with you they are onboard.

Susan Happersett who also took my Cooper Class made some of the project samples
Her instant book (color xerox) is one of the free gifts for people who order signed copies from me-
I realized a few years ago, that most people I met were via my cooper class–
of course many of our students do not keep in touch
but our interns often come from our classes–
mine more than dikko’s
he doesn’t mention it as much as i do

have you worked with some well known artists?

our policy is to work with unknown artists

oh really!

i always felt (as a little kid going to museums)
that people would read the lables instead of look at the art
and they would like it because of knowing the artist
I’m sure that’s true
instead of liking the picture
probably that was before i could read
and reading instead of looking at the picture seemed
it’s funny, now I can’t see the lables that well
so i’m back to looking at the pictures–i need to put on my reading glasses if i’m going to check out the fine print
my friend told me yesterday about her son loving late kandinskys
that most people thought they were from when he was insane or senile-
i remember loving mark rothko paintings
and explaining why they were so good to a room full of grownups when i was little-
color is something i have always loved-
and i teach a color course now at cuny

back to the book- how did it all begin?

well i got an email from a former student who was art director of a new imprint at random house
she asked if i’d be interested-
i had been thinking about doing a book based on my class since 2000 or so
right before 9/11 a publisher approached me
so i’d even written an outline
but then things happened-
and i kept thinking about it, but didn’t go further-
but when random house got in touch, they needed something the next morning-


and they told me around 5 pm

how is that possible?

i had to go up to teachers meetings at my daughter’s school that night
so on the subway i made some quick notes
i typed them the next morning and got them in in time for that meeting
it was a basic toc
table of contents
(took me awhile to get used to the toc acronym)
it was just there waiting for me to write it
they asked me to do a proposal–so of course that had to be a work of art
and i was thinking of working with several illustrators–
maybe one for each chapter–
but lindsay did such great illos for the proposal
that it made sense for her to do the whole book

and what about all the samples in the book?
are they all different artists?

we photographed purgatory pie press books for all the chapter openers
those books are collaborations among dikko and me and other artists and writers
and then lindsay made many of the samples
and kathleen, the designer, made some
but for the cloth books, i went to other artists

I love the ABCs of Beauty

susan happersett made that one
her mom helped her choose collage images–
that book is available–she made a photocopy edition of it

what about the cake box book?
where did that idea come from

i saw some books sewn into boxes here and there
and Emily Larned, Red Charming press, showed her work to my class and had some-
she showed me how to make them–
it’s one of the favorite projects that my students make
i wanted to tell you about china marks who made the cloth instant book for my photoshoot-
she is part of a group of artists that i belong to-
NY Artist Circle-
She introduced herself to the group saying ” I draw with an industrial sewing machine”

wow I just found the photo of that book

I went to a show of hers and LOVED HER WORK

it looks really interesting

take a look at her website if you can find it
the book she made for the shoot was a quick sketch
but she is finishing it–and changing it as she goes
for the traveling exhibit
i just got a really excited email from her–
i’ll see if i can quote it

i’m trying to find her site
here’s an article from Art in America and here’s a whole bunch of images of her work

this is part of her email-
“… wanted to tell you that in the last week the book has become
one of the most interesting things I have ever done. If you loved the
rough mock-up, you are going to lose your mind over the finished
book, which already has a title: “Dream Girls.”

sounds exciting!

i can’t wait to see the finished book
i just really love her work and was amazed that she was so generous to help me in my hour of desperation
i also thought she would be an amazing book artist
and it looks like she will be

so after random house agreed on your proposal how much time did you have?

well things were very slow in the beginning
they said yes, but it took months to get the official word
that first call was in november
i just had teachers meeting so it was about 2 yrs ago this week
then i finally had a call from the editor in january
and then things came up in her life
so the proposal deadline kept changing
and we kept getting more elaborate with it
we made a do-si-do letterpress cover
and my wonderful assistant christopher van auken worked with me doing the computer layout of my text
and lindsay made some illos
at the last minute
the real last minute
i was about to leave to take the subway up to my meeting
it turned out the pages didn’t back up correctly
so chris ran down and we went to kinkos and re did it


i handsewed it on the subway and was a little late for the meeting

what happened to the do-si-do?

luckily it looked so good that a man (who turned out to be a major designer in the company) came across the office to say WHAT’S THAT?? IT LOOKS GREAT–
the do si do was fine– i just cut the thread and sewed the new interior in
that’s the beauty of non-adhesive binding

mcsweeneys did a do-si-do issue recently.

oh i love mcsweeneys but don’t always see them
we’d thought how to make books might be a do-si-do–with accordion in the middle–to go with the chapters–

that would have been neat
but expensive to make

hard to say if it really could have worked-
i was the designer, but didn’t have any production imput
for me design and production are interrelated
but in big companies where things are made in china, it’s very different
and on this book there was much turnover
the original art director went on maternity leave
my original editor left
the production person got a promotion
and the book changed sizes 3 times-
size and format-
it was crazy!

well you must be happy that it finally got made and that it looks so great. So what are your next books?

ok- the second book is MAGIC BOOKS & PAPER TOYS

that will be so fun and my friend Liz is doing the samples

which was sort of the one i’d been working on in 2001
as i did How to Make Books, i realized that we had to shorten it and some of the structures made sense to put in the other book
in MB&PT
that one may have a very cool format-
but it’s sort of a secret for now
comes out next November–08–if all goes as planned-
we should be doing handset type and letterpress pages and cover designs–
if all goes as planned-

sounds great

it’s hard work, but i do enjoy it
especially when i have been getting nice feedback on H2MB-
did i tell you that entertainment weekly magazine chose it for THE MUST LIST this week?


my best friend from 7th grade saw it and sent me an email
the book is postage stamp size in the picture
well bigger than my chat icon!


but it shows
i’m there with amy winehouse
and pete seeger
i think EW is a whole new audience for purgatory pie press!
making books is fun and easy
it’s what you put into them that can be the challenge

ok well Esther thanks so much for talking about all this

thanks for interviewing me, julia-
i love your site

I love your books

and come to the book party and see the exhibit dec 6


bye and thanks again


It was really fun talking to Esther and I am seriously considering signing up for her class- which you should too if you are in the nyc area. Come see her talk more at a book signing, lecture and visual display at Cooper Union. Here’s the info:
Thursday, December 6, 6:30 p.m.
The Great Hall Gallery
7 East 7th Street at Third Avenue

Thanks again Esther and see you soon!

ps. I’m hoping to do many more author interviews and make it into a more regular series. I think it’s really nice to hear about how the books came to be. Eventually I will fix the menu so that all these series can be more easily accessible.



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